How a Terminal Cancer Diagnosis Can Change Everything


One caregiver grapples with the consequences of her sister's terminal cancer diagnosis.

When one hears the word cancer, it can elicit a variety of reactions. Personally, the only word that struck a deeper chord was hearing the word “terminal.” To be told that even today, with all that modern medicine has to offer and how far we have come, it is the saddest of realities that people still do die from cancer.

It is also a reality that it is 2017, and while people still lose their respective battles to cancer, they are living longer than they previously did. That in large part is due to prolonging life with quality through various medical services such as palliative care.

When it came to my sister, we heard the word “terminal” used multiple times. Each time it was just as jarring as the time before. It did not make me any more prepared for what the actuality of that statement truly meant. As she continued living life despite the looming diagnosis of terminal hanging over her, we discussed that a grieving process was going to occur.

This was almost a pre-grief. A sadness that we knew would befall those closest to her, due to the fact that we knew she was going to lose her life. How that happened and when it occurred would vary from one person to the next, but it was something that we were told would happen. The advice that was given was to fight our best to enjoy the time we had. To try and stave off the grief until she was gone.

As a family, it was quite complex. We were facing losing a sister and a daughter within a family that had been beyond close but was not quite shattered since cancer had come into our lives. The structure of our family had shifted and changed as each of us had coped drastically differently as time unfolded.

For me personally, this was a hard ask. I was more than her sister, but was also her caregiver. This created a sense of both guilt and responsibility about the situation that was unfolding. I wanted to save my sister for a multitude of reasons, but I also felt that it was my job to save her. When told that was not a possible outcome, not only was I devastated, but it wasn’t a reality that I was ready to reason with.

We had already coped with so much during her cancer journey and it was easy to convince myself that it wasn’t real. After all, we had heard this all before and yet here she was, still here. When we heard the word “terminal,” I knew we had to have some of the harder conversations that had been avoided. My sister needed to know how bad it was and I needed to know what she really wanted to do.

I had been charged with deciding so much about my sister’s care for quite a long time by this point. Now as we talked about how and where she wanted to pass and what she wanted done when that happened; I wanted those choices to solely be hers. Least of all for the obvious reasons associated with these conversations, but within my family there was conflict over the reality of what was unfolding. It created doubt for my sister as to what her condition was and thus the conversations were that much more difficult.

This stage of cancer was incredibly difficult for me to navigate. When my sister was initially diagnosed, I made a choice to set aside everything about our relationship and take care of her. As we came to learn that she was dying, a conflict began to build inside of me. I didn't want to spend the precious time that we had left reliving the past, but I also knew the pain of leaving words left unsaid.

In the end, we are some of the lucky ones and my sister is still here. I learned so much about my family and myself during this time in our lives, but I certainly don’t have it all figured out. Cancer is like a hurricane that rips through life and when it goes, it leaves so much wreckage and devastation within its path. While I have begun to rebuild, I know that the relationship that I have with my sister has a lot of room for growth.

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